“Turn on, tune in, drop out” was a mantra for the 1960s counterculture that found its poets in Burroughs, Kesey and Ginsberg; its pied pipers in Dylan and Hendrix. But its guru was Timothy Leary. The acid icon who led communes in Cambridge, Mass., Millbrook, N.Y., and Mexico in the ’60s now lives in Beverly Hills and is the subject of a biopic in early development. And 30 years after Harvard fired him, Leary is still a hallucinogenic pitchman: “I’ve found a great new mind-altering experience: senility.”
West Point-born and a Berkeley grad, Leary says his second life began on Oct. 22, 1955 — the morning of his 35th birthday — when he found his wife’s body in an exhaust-filled garage. After the funeral, he took his two children to Florence, Italy, where he met professor David McClelland, director of the Harvard Center for Personality Research. McClelland pursuaded Leary to join the faculty.
Three years at Harvard shot Leary, now 73, into the spotlight. His studies hailing drug-induced consciousness expansion prompted beat poets like William Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg to visit his academic grove.
Harvard fired Leary in 1963 — its first firing in 300 years. His mother disowned him. And in a fit of political hyperbole, Richard Nixon branded Leary the most dangerous man alive.
Leary continued his LSD experiments from Millbrook, N.Y., to San Francisco. But the ’60s ended, and in 1970 Leary was incarcerated for possession of marijuana. After five months, Leary escaped and flew to Algiers on a false passport. There he found political asylum with Eldridge Cleaver.
Leary says the CIA captured him in January 1973. He spent two more years in prison and was released on parole. He then dropped from the public eye, though he lived well by writing six computer programs, consulting software companies and even taking a number of cameo roles in films.
Leary’s Benedict Canyon house sits on a hill, its interior part professorial abandon and part MTV dada, as if the 1970s and 1980s never happened. On a recent visit, Leary, wearing sweatpants and a purple polyester shirt, was discussing his impending fifth divorce with his two lawyers.
The ’90s have found Leary again. Eric Gardner, the owner of Panacea Entertainment, has optioned the rights to Leary’s fifth and most recent autobiography, “Flashbacks,” and will produce the picture with Interscope. Scripter Bima Stagg is at work on the screenplay.
Leary also appears in an ad for the Gap, and he recently filmed a musicvideo with Billy Idol.
He spends a lot of time with his two granddaughters, who are playing computer games in the den. “Just sit and watch them, and listen. You’ll learn a hell of a lot.”
Meanwhile, this relic of the free-love era asks: “That madam, Heidi, lives here in Benedict Canyon, doesn’t she? Says she knows Billy (Idol). I know one thing about Billy: He would never have to pay for sex.”